The holiday commemorates God's liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. As the story unfolds, we eat freshly ground horseradish to remember the bitterness of slavery and dip parsley in salt water to recall the tears of our ancestors and slaves everywhere. There are tricks to keep the youngsters engaged during the lengthy pre-meal ritual. It falls to the youngest child to recite, well, sing actually, the "four questions." Later, the adults hide the "dessert matzah" (now there's a concept!), and the kids spend the rest of the evening searching for it so as to be rewarded with a finder's fee.
Telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt isn't a jingoistic exercise. The name of Moses, for example, is scarcely mentioned (to discourage worship of a human being), and there are endless opportunities to reflect on the less exalted aspects of human nature.
Why didn't Potiphar have Joseph executed when his wife accused the servant of attempted rape? Probably because he knew his wife's character. The Hebrews don't come out smelling like roses either. We're told that Pharaoh embittered the lives of the Hebrew slaves with hard labor, the separation of husbands and wives, and even with the murder of Jewish male babies. Yet we know that later, when the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they pined for the "fleshpots" of Egypt.
One lesson: Ingratitude is a fixed aspect of human nature, as is a tendency to romanticize the past. Another lesson: Freedom is a precious gift, but it isn't easy. Tradition teaches that the Israelites were made to wander the desert for 40 years because they needed time to shed their slave mentality.
There is another ritual -- my favorite -- that accompanies the recitation of the 10 plagues God inflicted upon the Egyptians. With the name of each plague, we remove a drop of our wine onto a plate, symbolically diminishing our joy because the Egyptians, "who are also God's children," suffered.
After dipping vegetables, reclining on pillows and reciting questions and answers, the festive meal begins. Centuries of Jewish cooks have devised ways to make us forget that our diet is limited -- though it has been scientifically proven that eating matzah is never enjoyable. Still, the symbols, the stories, the songs and the flavors of Passover are indelible. They have been for 3,000 years.